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Indian Rock: Us and Them

By Vineet Kanabar | March 5, 2008

Split Magazine Features“Us, and them.
And after all we’re only ordinary men.
Me, and you.
God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.”

- “Us and Them”, Pink Floyd

It is strange how these words from Messrs Roger Waters and Richard Wright symbolise what the underground music scene in India is for bands that play English music. The talent is bursting at the seams, but there are, seemingly, no takers. Cops routinely break up gigs, sponsors are hard to find, cutting an album takes an aeon, even for a proven band.

A glaring example of this prejudice against Indian rock music is my experience at a recent set of gigs. I was at the SAARC Bands Festival — a three day musical extravaganza bringing together all the folk music outfits from across the subcontinent. Indian Ocean were the main act on the last day, and a band of their reputation had to cut short their set due to intervention by the Delhi police. The following week, a cultural fest under the same umbrage, playing what is apparently ‘true’ Indian folk music, with the ‘manjiras’ and ‘dhols’ and sexually frustrated sounding vocalists, was allowed to continue way beyond the deadline. I know this, not because Tyler knows this. I was there!

At another recent gig, one of the biggest college fests in India was halted at 10:15PM by the Mumbai police, a concert that was headlined by two of India’s biggest bands, Thermal And A Quarter and Zero. Now, for the layperson, I would like to tell you that most headlining bands play for about two hours, including whatever time is required for change ups. Zero played for a meager 50 minutes. All in all, a disappointment for fans who were standing in lines for upwards of three hours.

And they say the scene is improving.

These discouraging signs for Indian rock music aren’t a recent development. It has been this way since the ’80s, when Farhad Wadia started the Independence Rock movement at Rang Bhavan, Mumbai. “To yeh thé ab tak ke samachar, ab prastut hai pashchatya sangeet ka karyakram…” was the closest one ever got to “western music” growing up in a small town in India in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Then MTV happened. The Gulf War forced open India’s gates to foreign invasion. And we are eternally grateful to them, for introducing Justin Timberlake, and Shakira to an audience that already possessed an attention span that was shorter than a nano second. The scope for original rock music in India should’ve grown, but it waned during those dark years in the early ’90s.

Cops routinely break up gigs, sponsors are hard to find, cutting an album takes an aeon, even for a proven band.

Not everything that happened then was bad, though. We were blessed with Rock Machine/Indus Creed and Parikrama. Indus Creed had a few videos aired on MTV, but the audience’s reception wasn’t to the pleasure of most corporate honchos. Even Parikrama, the few legends that the scene here in India has, built a fan base playing covers throughout the ’90s. Pentagram, Bollywood music mogul Vishal Dadlani’s electronica quartet, is India’s fastest selling English band, and have the international sound needed to create an impact abroad that will make the industry honchos sit up and take notice. But I guess our romeos on the street need Vishalji to keep Himesh bhaiyya company on the sets of some inane talent competition show. The lack of personal and social expression in Indian film music can be the topic of another day’s discussion, so the less said about it, the better.

The Indian rock scene seems to have become a melting pot of influences, and comes across as more open to experimentation than bands outside. Add to it the plethora of options to experiment with, the rich and diverse Indian classical and folk music. This is where Indian rock bands have an edge, and a chance of creating music that stands apart from mainstream rock elsewhere. But no one in the country seems to have the time to give the good (or bad) ol’ boys of rock ‘n’ roll a chance.

Even a band of the caliber of Them Clones, finalists at the first Channel [V] Launchpad concert, have been busy producing an album for about three years now. As has been the case with many a talented Indian band, making English music has been the death knell for a career in music, at least one that might promise any financial remuneration. Once you start an English rock/alternative band, it is as good as rendering yourself untouchable, as far as record labels go.

Not that the record labels are to blame. The popcorn-eating, west-aping, commercially glossed-over youth of our now culturally bankrupt nation likes to listen to what the cool kids in the You-Es passed over as old stuff a while ago. Nirvana, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Linkin Park and a host of other sold out bands find safe hermitage in the minds of the senseless listener in India. Of course, listening to the stuff keeps them in touch with what the West is doing.

And yet, there are the takers for Hindi bands.

Bands like Euphoria have infused their music with local flavours from north India. And they sang in Hindi. Indian Ocean’s ‘Kandisa’ is another brilliant example of how rock fuses well with Indian folk sounds. A new breed of underground rock music needs to be mentioned here as well. The “Sutta” song and its ilk — India’s answer to indie music abroad — go a step further. Their nonchalant use of Hindi expletives ensured instant stardom among campus youth, and those long out of it (but not quite the geriatric generation).

Many bands still produce music in English — purely as an interest, and as a passion. The lack of takers for their sound results in bands doing their own promotions, and running from pillar to post to get gigs, while dealing with legal and police issues. It is a commendable achievement for the crusaders of modern music today, and the internet has been their ally. Free downloads, and gig promotion has been made easier with the virtuality of it all, and the Indian music industry has been shown the proverbial finger.

The underground scene will not die here. Not as long as we have Junkyard Groove, and the Superfuzz, or Bhayanak Maut and recent Livewire winners, Amidst The Chaos, nor will Prestorika and Cyanide let the haters take centre stage. Doubters be damned. Us guitar-starved music lovers will keep them soulless musicians at bay. As the cliché that gives everyone the passage to cool-ness these days goes, rock on.


19 Comments. Post Yours Here.
  1. March 7, 2008, 8:04 am Ritesh M

    Sincere and brutally honest view of our scene. Nice :)

  2. March 7, 2008, 11:31 am Anwin

    Awesome post. Yes, the Indian rock scene seems to be only an underground phenomena. I hope the music channels promote more of the bands.

  3. March 10, 2008, 4:00 pm Daddy Doodle

    Its a fad these days in Bombay to stop the gigs 20-30 minutes before the deadline. Sad as this might sound, its the truth. But…

    “The underground scene will not die here.”

    We won’t let it…

  4. March 10, 2008, 11:55 pm Ashwini Gurbuxani

    Plain truth, skilfully put.

    Blessed be the writer, these thoughts echo in of all of us and this expression has felt like talking to the voice inside me.

    This is an insider’s view of the outside. now i would request for a sequel covering what is done to bring more people in. free album downloads (Insane Biography, Chaos Sessions), albums being sold literally in paper envelopes (Procrastination), free gig with free food (Avial)! 200 bucks for an official Band Tee (shipping included). This would eventually lead to debates of cultural acceptance and untrue embodiment of all things rock-n-roll. Because sooner or later the inside is gonna be the place where every collage kid, jumping around in his hormones, wants to be. Because as we speak people think their ‘Chaddies Rock’, their chemistry paper was Rocking and Rock and Metal are one and the same thing. Mashpeats are a must at every geeg and you have to hit back if an unknown smelly, harry bastard throws you into one.

    for now though, I’m glad that Vineet has made a just attempt at the initiation of the argument.

  5. March 12, 2008, 5:06 pm Vineet

    Thanks for the suggestion Ashwin, when I think of it, this might just make for a very interesting sequel.

  6. March 13, 2008, 11:40 am Azeem

    Nice one

  7. March 15, 2008, 12:31 pm sauvik chowdhury


  8. March 19, 2008, 8:11 pm CruciFire

    Brutally true facts, eloquently put… Very well written…

  9. March 19, 2008, 10:06 pm Neeraj

    the facts hurt! but its so true.

  10. April 6, 2008, 4:33 am Digant

    amazingly put in clear and simple language, the unspoken truth. awesome work dude. rock on.

  11. April 6, 2008, 11:36 pm makemywish

    Hey Guys. Check out this article on Indian rock music http://subalternstudies.com/?p=337

  12. April 21, 2008, 1:12 pm Darrell

    Spot on!

  13. May 26, 2008, 3:32 am R.Chi

    I am an optimist. I still believe there would that one MUSICIAN, who can change the whole scene of Indian rock. In 4 years, I believe the scene is goin’ to change….but it would definitely need a grassroot level efforts like…setting up a strong and completely funded ROCK music body which would ensure rock fests at as many colleges all over India, fund music classes, give the young students a taste of the spirit of Rock. I feel its not the music they need to hear. Its the attitude they have to upgrade to appreciate rock or metal or woteva. IDENTITY is the whole crux of the issue. The more clear the youth is aware of their identity, the better. R.CHI

  14. May 29, 2008, 1:23 pm Yashodhara

    The comment on folk music was unwarranted. Letting it pass, let us also be brutalluy honest that Indian “English” rock also needs to get lot more edgier in terms of its lyrics and compositions and get counted when compared to English rock from everywhere (and I don’t mean the standard USA/UK circuits).

    If you now look at Bangla rock in English , the story is different? Anjan Dutta is not rock but his voice is LEonard Cohen and Pete Seegar combined and he meshes in Bangla beautifully. We need bold innovators like him in English rock as well. Most of the current lot is flash in the pana dn we need a Freddie Mercury.

    Having said that, the article is extremely valid. What I am always confused by is why arts in other formats i.e Indian English writing given an opposite treatment i.e welcomed and feted even if the work is so-so.

    We also need to have a muc more accessible lounge culture where jamming between all musicians happens – both local folk, Indian English rock, spoken poetry, etc. Here in Shanghai and B angkok where I divide my time, a lot of samll bars and wine cafes have this and it is amazing how even countries with zero English speakers can achieve with some support from people.

  15. June 3, 2008, 12:31 am Ameya

    True, True!
    I would definitely like to read more on this…
    I’m definitely confused about the west-aping concept…
    Rock in Hindi sounds a little unnatural,
    and yet fake accents are kill-joy letdowns in most contemporary Indian Rock Bands.
    Its really hard to reach there without seeming ‘wannabe’.

  16. August 29, 2008, 10:37 am Nishit

    *bump* eh? i come in pretentious peace and to add my h(airy)armless long-drawn long-winded two cents(so much for west-aping)- am i right in drawing that we have a catch-22 situation? vineet the anchorite kanabar my friend?

  17. September 10, 2008, 11:14 pm Alok Parande

    Well written…

    In the future… would like some stuff on hindi rock too!!

    Good Job..

  18. December 17, 2008, 8:05 am Fever Dawg

    Commendable effort there. But,
    you cant blame police for letting the dhols and manjiras go beyond deadline, you cant gather a mob to beat the police up if they ruin a gig, but dhol and manjira fans can.. besides, the police dont listen to rock music.. and the police were a bloody awesome band.
    The popcorn-eating, west-aping, commercially glossed-over youth of our now culturally bankrupt nation listen to stuff which cool kids in US passed over as old stuff not because they want to imitate the cool kids if US but because they have a taste for this type of music. Many cool kids from US prefer eminem and 50 cent to stuff like nirvana and metallica, and i despise that being a fan of rock music. Dont blame the kids for listening to this music, its what they like.. make them listen to stuff like PSP or mariachi by zero. i like it, so will they.
    Sutta was good music not just catchy lyrics, for that matter even GMD.. these people have had their share of miseries taking up music as a career too
    We had a lot of takers for zero’s music, it all depends on the quality of music they make.

  19. December 17, 2008, 8:16 am Fever Dawg

    Most of the young rock musicians of this country have grown up listening to stuff like metallica, nirvana and iron maiden, covered songs by these bands when they formed their own bands.. we are not senseless listeners.

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